(Editor's note: These are the words of our wise and compassionate StillStanding1. They are the result of mining her own pain and sifting through her own story to find what's true for her. Her words might be difficult for some to read so please do what's best for you.)
I know many of us post D-day wonder how our spouses could be so selfish, how they could choose to hurt us, the people they promised to protect and love How could they do it? What were they thinking? As it happens, I am a mad hatter – someone who has both cheated and been cheated on. I’m in a position to shed some light on those questions, with the caveat that it is just one person’s experience and perspective.
Those of you who have not seen my posts over in “Separating and Divorcing” may not know that I cheated on my ex husband while we were married. Before I begin a brief description of the setting and factors, know that I own and recognize that this is one of the most awful, hurtful things I have ever done, that I have worked hard to understand why and to make amends. That I was the one that gave him the words “this was not your fault.” That we stayed together for another 12 years before his cheating brought our marriage to an end.
I grew up in a dysfunctional family marked by my mother’s alcoholism (in response to PTSD after her house was blown up around her during WW2) and the codependency and denial of everyone around her. I was the poster child for shame and self-loathing. Nothing I did was ever good enough and when I needed something it was always too much. I was raped by my best friend in college. Not surprisingly, I struggled with depression and intimacy for years. Also, not surprisingly I married an emotionally unavailable guy with secrets. Fast forward to post 2nd child, I had severe postpartum depression. I shut the door to my office, so I could cry during the day. I went to the doctor and a well-intentioned NP put me on a megadose of an anti-depressant. It felt pretty good. Too good. (Go chug two glasses of wine. That’s how I felt all the time.) The problem was, I was still in enormous pain (i.e. the postpartum) but now there was medication mania layered over it. Throw into this flammable mess a lighted match: turns out mom was a serial cheater in addition to a boozer and she used me as a cover for her party lifestyle. All the sleepovers at my friend Kristen’s house, where my mom would come too, were not our special mother/daughter weekends. They were just a blind. Kristen’s mom (single) was one of her drinking buddies and they would get themselves fancy, go out to party and pick up men. As a child, I loved going to Kristen’s house, playing with her Snoopy doll, watching Wonder Woman and having her grandmother put us to bed. The revelations from my sister (who was dealing with her own anger with my mother at the time) filled in some of the details that I did not realize were significant as a small girl. The sense of betrayal at the hands of my own mother was enormous and indescribably painful. Any last shred of hope that she might actually love me was gone. I don’t know how else to describe what happened inside me other than “I broke.” This was the final confirmation that I was the most worthless, unlovable person on the planet.
Each cheater’s “why” is different, but I promise you it boils down to shame, fear and self-loathing. All of these feelings stem from unresolved childhood trauma. Many of you will look at your spouse and think “what trauma?” he says he had a great childhood. Trauma doesn’t have to be big. It could have been ongoing micro cuts, a prolonged series of shaming events, lack of love or attention. Boys, just like girls, get so many messages about how they don’t measure up and when parental figures don’t help pick them back up or when they even reinforce those messages, they accumulate. Over time, we become convinced that we are not worthy. Big trauma also happens to boys, as we see increasingly in the news but they have less venues to talk about it and get help.
And then there’s this: Trauma is passed on when undealt with – the trauma doesn’t have to be first person. So if your parent has PTSD, this can be scary for you as a kid. And double whammy, you learn their numbing and avoidance behaviors as life skills. As a child you take it personally when a parent is withdrawn or emotionally unavailable (I still have such a hard time with this in relationships). As a child, you can either over identify and take on the behaviors in an attempt to connect with the parents, or you may become the rescuer or “parentified” and take on responsibilities your parent should have done for you. Or you may end up emotionally uninvolved, withdrawn, depressed and have relationship troubles later in life.
Some of this stuff feels pretty familiar, right? Pieces falling into place? The bottom line is that each of us brings some messed up stuff with us into adulthood. For cheaters, it’s often a deep-rooted belief that we are unloved and unlovable. It’s a place of tremendous pain. At some point, the pain becomes too much or is triggered in some way and we take too many steps in the wrong direction.
How does it start?: I think for most, it is a kind of validation seeking. A chance to feel “better” or “ok” even for a split second. We can pretend like we aren’t hurting or not completely ashamed of who we are. I believe there is one point of entry; the slippery slope. It’s little steps. I’m not doing anything wrong.
This isn’t hurting anyone: I was just chatting online with men. It was just chat. The attention felt good, made me feel less worthless. And it wasn’t cheating. He used porn every day, so I was allowed to chat (justification). It's just the same. But I also wasn’t telling him what I was doing because I was afraid he might not like it (sneaking, denial).
He was not thinking of you. Except for when he was: I was not thinking about my husband when I was chatting with men online. Just like I didn’t think about him when I was talking to people at work. I did sometimes feel guilty. I ignored those warning signs because I was getting some deep pain temporarily numbed. And when I finally met up with some of those men in person for drinks, I wasn’t thinking about him then either. Not until after, when I felt terrible and guilty and absolutely sure, now, more than ever, that I was the worst person alive. I can remember being out on a run and thinking over and over “what am I doing? What if he finds out? He’s going to leave me and take the kids. I have to stop. What am I doing?” But I couldn’t stop. It was like a compulsion.
When he says he doesn’t remember, he’s probably telling the truth: There’s so much I don’t remember. Details that no longer matter to me because those people never mattered at all. But I’m sure my husband recalls situations because he was doing that piecing together the timeline thing. When I was here doing X you were off doing Y. I don’t even remember names at this point, it’s been so long and those people don’t deserve any space in my head. And denial and self-protection kick in. Our minds take over and soften these things, so we can keep going.
Why do they keep going back to the poisoned well: If they are so wracked with pain and guilt and shame, why do they keep doing it? Why not just stop? Because it is just like any other compulsion/addiction. You do some and it feels good and then it feels shitty, so you do some more in the hopes it will feel good again. I can also say that from my own experience, it felt like cutting myself. I was already a horrible person, why not just do more damage to myself. I was going to end up a prostitute because I was so worthless. I was hoping, at one point, that one of the men would kill me and dump the body. Pain and shame.
Rewriting history: I know that during the affair, cheaters will often rewrite history, your story, to justify what they are doing. They have a rotten life, a neglectful, nagging spouse, so they deserve to pursue a little “happiness.” This was my husband when he cheated. Life was so bad with me that he had to escape. Turns out he was trying to escape, not from me, but from himself and from years of lying and denying his own story. I do not recall needing to rewrite history to justify what I was doing. I knew it was awful, I was simply imploding, destroying my life. It was a cry for help no different than my suicide attempt after being raped. Some of your spouses are rewriters and some are simply imploding. Both behaviors are driven by shame and guilt.
Being mad at you while he’s acting out or being super nice to you while he’s acting out – both are faces of guilt: Some will be short-tempered and angry with you. Nothing you do is right. If they make you the villain in their rewritten history then they are justified in their shitty choices. Or they are so consumed with guilt, they go out of their way to do nice things, to pay attention to you, buy you presents, get extra affectionate. It seems like life is great. Until you find out that it isn’t. I was in this second camp. My husband was in the first. Both behaviors are driven by shame and guilt.
Discovery vs confession – why I think this matters to your recovery timeline
I think there is a difference between confessing and discovery but it's nuanced and it doesn’t mean you can’t bounce back and stay together. A cheater who confesses is taking steps to own what they have done, be honest and make things right. One who is caught can definitely get there too but they are reeling, just like you. I think it takes longer to get to a starting point from discovery. The timeline is extended by the cheaters’ fogged brain and waffling and trying to sort out what they’ve done and what they want. Some are caught and are instantly remorseful and want to work on fixing things. More often they are ambivalent. And this is the shittiest, hardest path. So if your spouse has confessed, take a breath and think about what you need to feel safe and to move forward together (or not together, if you'd prefer). If you’ve caught your spouse, then you have the same options but you also will determine how long you wait for them to get sorted and what you will and will not put up with in the meantime.
His response will be shame. What he does with that shame depends on what he learned about shame growing up and the other shame he’s been carrying around. No matter whether he’s confessed or been discovered, there is going to be so much shame. And his behaviors and choices are going to have a lot to do with what drove him to cheat in the first place. He’s likely to display the same shitty coping strategies he’s been using all along. You are lost and it is so hard to know what is the next right move, even when you know you want to make amends. Understand that when he gets mad that you want to talk about it again – that’s his shame talking. When he refuses to go to a therapist – that’s his shame talking. When he wants to act like it is all in the past – that’s his shame talking. And until he’s ready to deal with and root out the source of his shame, he’s going to stay stuck.
And remember, even the poster boy for the most remorseful spouse ever is going to screw up at some point. He could be doing everything right and then one day forget to check in at lunch. It may not mean he’s cheating again. It may mean that he’s starting to recover (and it's going to piss you off that he’s even remotely moving on if you are not). Talk about it in a safe venue for you both. Reset the ground rules. Begin again if that works for you. I went to a work happy hour a few months after I confessed to my husband. I forgot to check in. I drank too much (medicating my shame, still). My husband panicked and asked my mother-in-law to watch the kids while he looked for me. So the price I paid for screwing up was that my MIL learned that I had cheated. The price of undealt-with shame is more shame. I was so lost in my own pain and misguided attempts to recover that I had no idea how much my action would frighten and hurt him. None.
Why doesn’t he understand how hurt I am?: Because you don’t get it until you get it, very often until it happens to you. Just like our friends don’t really get it (and why we feel so heard and understood here). You know when I got it? About a month after he cheated. I was deep in my own pain. We were in false reconciliation. I was weeping uncontrollably on him (full oceans of tears and boogers) while he held me and all I could say was “I did this to you. I did this to you.” Because I finally grasped how much I had hurt him. And I was horrified.
Why does he want to just “move on”?: One word: shame. He doesn’t want to have to feel the shame of what he has done. He doesn’t want to have to face the hurt he’s caused or in himself. Its okay to want to take a break from being in that space. I get it. It's exhausting. But you have to both come back to it until you both are ready to leave it behind.
Some final thoughts: Problems in the marriage are not an excuse to cheat – he’ll try to lay that on you anyway. Our marriage counselor definitely held my husband responsible for not taking better care of me, whatever that means. It’s a shame we didn’t know better and find a more qualified therapist. My marriage was not perfect when I cheated. We were in the thick of the childbearing years. You’re exhausted and often lonely together. He was absorbed with work. I was drowning in babies. None of it meant it was okay to cheat. My cheating was not his fault. It was a shitty coping strategy for dealing with old, old pain triggered by new news. His cheating is not your fault. It was never about you. It was and is 100% about his own pain and shame and history.
There are different kinds of cheaters. There are true narcissists. People who are solely out for themselves and remorseless about hurting others. I think these folks are rare and are still operating from a place of pain. Self-centeredness is a deeply lonely and isolated place. I believe most cheaters were once decent humans who truly lost their way. Some find their way back and some just don’t, either because they can’t or because they are too afraid to do something different.
Getting a second chance with my husband was one of the most important and loving things that had happened in my life up to that point. And I did my broken, imperfect best with it. I’ve spent years in therapy and I feel like I understand how I got there and why I will never be there again. I knew, for a little while, what it felt like to be chosen and how important that was for my recovery. It’s why I stayed and fought for my ex for so long. I understood where he was and how much you need someone to believe in you when you are there. I’m not excusing cheating and I’m not advocating for staying longer in any situation than is good for you. At some point, I had to take responsibility for believing in myself, in both stories. At some point our spouses need to be responsible for believing in themselves too.